Inta Ruka’s Latvian Portraits
In the photographer Inta Ruka’s project Amalias Street 5a, comprising some 150 photographs, initiated in 2004, introduces us to the residents of the 37 apartments of a wooden building on the outskirts of old Riga, far from the restored tourist districts. Here, Inta Ruka documents life in Riga in the new millennium and the transformations of the Latvian capital after the country became a member of the EU. The people portrayed include the owners of the building, Rita Stibele and Ugis Stibelis; Edgars Jakovlevs who is from the countryside and who works in Riga in the summers; Marija Matvejuka; Gerda Kristapsone and her son Valters; and the Kurova family who shares a single room. The children play and pose in front of Inta Ruka’s camera, including Liene Livdane and the dog Jessica, Rihards Stibelis with his mask, Kristaps Kristapson with his fake nails, and little Tija Puplaka. The apartments are small and overcrowded, so the residents congregate in the yard to work, play and socialise. The house comprises many interesting architectural features but the building is run-down and the limited financial resources of the residents make improvements and refurbishment very slow. As always in Inta Ruka’s projects, the images are accompanied by brief comments based on the models’ stories about their living and working conditions, their friends and acquaintances, their dreams and aspirations, and their financial and familial circumstances. The series is actually about existential issues such as happiness, sorrow, love and hate – about life. Children and adults, women and men are depicted in frontal portraits, close up, but always with respect and empathy. The portraits are pregnant with a sense of darkness and gravitas, which makes the images of the residents of Amalias Street 5a stay in your memory.
Born in 1958 in Riga, Inta Ruka began her photographic career at the end of the 1970s. For some years she was a member of the photo studio Ogre, run by the famous Latvian photographer Egons Spuris, whom she married. Their discussions on photography, methodology and technique inspired her to pursue her own ideas. In 1983 she started to work on her series My Country People, which she concluded in 2000. The series documents the life and people of her native region Balvi in eastern Latvia close to the Russian border and is a collection of portraits of her friends and relatives and of a vanishing peasant culture. This was when she developed her way of working with black-and-white photography. Inta Ruka photographs in natural light, using a Rolleiflex camera on a tripod. During the long sittings while she waits for the right light and for her models to relax, she chats to them in order to learn more about them and the environment she is about to portray. She does not work on commission but as a freelance with her own projects. My Country People represented Latvia in the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999 and made her name internationally. Inta Ruka has held some twenty solo exhibitions in Latvia and abroad and has participated in a large number of group exhibitions worldwide since the end of the 1980s.
Inta Ruka describes her way of working as documentary. With its roots in the 1890s USA, the genre of documentary photography came into its own in the 1930s with the much acclaimed project Farm Security Administration (FSA). The aim was to locate, document and uncover social injustices, by photographic projects. The term “documentary” has been interpreted in many ways, and in recent years the genre has been the subject of much criticism and re-evaluation. Inta Ruka writes herself into this tradition, but for her it is more about an approach. She emphasises that her subject matter are real people who live in a specific place in a specific time. In a 1978 essay, the Swedish photographer Sune Jonsson wrote that documentary photography is an art form that describes the world from a personal perspective, based on profound knowledge and powerful empathy. Sune Jonsson has received much attention and acclaim for his images of the countryside of northern Sweden. Born in 1930 in the province of Västerbotten, he launched his career with a book about his native village. There are many photographers like Inta Ruka and Sune Jonsson whose background gives them a special interest in and access to a specific culture. Needless to say, an important source of inspiration and reference for this type of photography are the photographers of the FSA project, such as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Inta Ruka still works with analogue paper prints (Gelatin Silver Prints), and is thus a link to the older generation. For those of us who love classic, black-and-white photography, this gives her exhibitions an extra dimension.
Inta Ruka claims that she photographs because she is interested in people. The camera is a way of approaching people, which is why she has pursued and developed portrait photography. She has often been compared to August Sander and his ambitious project of documenting different professions in Germany in the years leading up to the Second World War. However, Inta Ruka’s photography is about something else. Her vision is to highlight the individual, the personal, in order to show that everyone has their special place and something to say. She is not interested in the collective as much as in the individual. She is part of group of contemporary Baltic photographers, who, in the 1980s and 1990s, had to deal with and adapt to the Soviet Union, and who then documented the changes that took place in their countries in the Post-Soviet era. The key to Inta Ruka’s imagery is within herself. She has a unique ability to communicate and to make people at ease and open up. It is also about the confidence she inspires in her own person and her work. When you look at her images and read the brief texts, you can almost hear Inta Ruka’s voice – when she, in her expressive and warm manner, talks about her love of photography and about her many friends and acquaintances in Riga and the surrounding areas.
Translation to English: Hans Olsson